Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Who's in it?: Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

What's it about?: Show biz is seductive, but evil. Or am I reading it wrong?

How is it?: I feel like I need to spend some time on this one, but I'm not going to do all of that tonight. For one thing, there are two things I need to talk about here: 1) the movie itself, and 2) the print in the Mill Creek box set I've been working through.

I'll start with the film itself, because that (mostly) doesn't change from print to print. It's a spectacle with lavish sets and unforgettable make-up by Lon Chaney. I grew up looking at magazine stills of Chaney in his Phantom make-up, terrorizing the crap out of Mary Philbin. It was one of those movies that I longed to see, and it's no less memorable than those photos.

Chaney's Phantom is as horrible at heart as he is in appearance. He's a true spirit in that he haunts viewers long after the movie's done. He's a super effective villain. And the supporting cast is all really effective too. Those who are there for comedy relief are funny. Those intended to cast suspicion and build tension are appropriately creepy and mysterious. Norman Kerry plays the heroic Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, and he's a man to root for.

The only character who's ever given me a problem is Christine Daae (Mary Philbin). She's sort of engaged to Raoul, but we learn early that she's been carrying on a secret relationship with an unseen "Master" who's been training her and using nefarious means to advance her career. I think maybe that she's supposed to be torn in her allegiance, but she just comes across as fickle. Before we ever see her, Raoul's older brother is trying to warn him about rumors of Christine's disloyalty. Raoul dismisses the warning, but in her first actual scene, Christine's telling him that she can't be with him. Her heart belongs to her career.

If she feels that way, why is Raoul just now hearing about it? How has he not seen this coming? The most obvious answer is that she's been giving him reason to believe that they could actually end up together. If that's true, it makes her extremely fickle and I have a problem with that.

What works for me though is to back away and see the whole thing as a metaphor. She's struggling to balance romance and career and hasn't figured out how to do it. She sees the choice as an all or nothing proposition. And in her day, it probably was. If I'm right, that makes the Phantom a true Spirit of the Opera in the sense that he personifies it. And - by extension - any career in the arts. He/the Opera seduces Christine early on, but once she spends some time with him/it, she realizes how demanding and selfish he/it is. Spoiler: she ultimately rejects him/it for a life of romance with Raoul.

I don't know if that was the filmmaker's intention, much less the intention of Gaston Leroux, who wrote the original novel. I've read the novel, but it's been years and I don't recall if or how much Leroux made that point. It's a valid way of reading the movie though, and it makes Christine's indecision easier to swallow. I can't relate to her choosing an unseen "Master" over a human being who loves her (and to whom she's obviously attracted), but I can relate to her struggling to choose between two conflicting life paths. And as much as modern me rebels against the idea that she should have to choose, I can't really argue that art is ultimately selfish and demanding. Not that artists are necessarily selfish and demanding, but that Art itself is. We can unpack that more in the comments if you're interested, but regardless of whether you agree with my reading or with whatever point the movie's making, it's a thought-provoking film as well as a viscerally exciting one. It deserves its reputation.

The specific print that the Mill Creek set uses is better than the first VHS copy that I owned, but only barely. That VHS copy took "silent movie" literally and didn't even include music. I used to throw on some classical music when I watched it, but that had the effect of changing the mood in weird ways. Depending on the track I picked and how it synched with the film, exuberant dance sequences could become solemn affairs, while creepy moments were sometimes oddly playful. It was a fun experiment in the effect of music on film images, but it wasn't a satisfying way to watch the movie.

The Mill Creek version does the same thing. It's got a music soundtrack, but it's made up of random classical pieces without any thought about how they affect the story. That's especially tragic given that there are some awesome "gotcha" moments in the film that deserve some musical support. Or at least deserve not to have the music actively working against them.

That's what I want to talk more about another time. I've got a second VHS print that uses original music composed especially for the movie, and I've got a DVD coming that does the same thing, but with a different score. It should be interesting to compare those two with the Mill Creek version. And while I'm at it, I should pull Dracula into that conversation. My DVD copy of the Lugosi movie has two different soundtrack options (three, if the Spanish version is different; I don't remember).

The Mill Creek print does include the hand-colored section during the bal masqué, so it has that going for it. Which is nice. I'll talk more about that when I write about the soundtracks.

Rating: Classic

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